twitchy

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For the first interview on this website it seemed obvious to me to hit up Anette Moldvaer, reigning World Cup Tasters champion and partner in London’s newly founded Square Mile Coffee Roasters. When I met Anette in the flurry of activity at the Canadian National Barista Championship in Toronto in September, I didn’t get much time to talk to her — but as I’ve been thinking more and more about how one develops a palate lately, she was the first person I wanted to talk to. Furthermore, in the male-dominated land of judging and cupping, Anette is, how do you say — kicking some serious ass. It’s cliched to say I look forward to a day when we don’t have to point out that someone who stands out in their field is even more important because they must break gender barriers to do so — but unfortunately in coffee this is still somewhat true. Thanks to Anette for her thoughtful answers.

Was there a turning point for you from becoming a casual drinker (of coffee, anything) into someone aware of more nuance in tasting? A particular cup? Or did you approach it from wanting to develop your palate intentionally?

When I worked bar back home there were the odd attempts made to expose us baristas to tasting and cupping, but I never really felt it was challenging and thorough enough, or that it had a purpose beyond being a treat outside the daily routine. It wasn’t till I changed jobs and started roasting and cupping that I got the exposure to greens and guidance I needed to gain confidence in my palate. There was a huge jump between what I had been tasting in the old coffee shop to what I found on the new cupping table, and the opportunity to make up different espresso blends on my own opened a whole new world of flavours. My friends back home still laugh at the fact that I do this job because they know me not to like coffee at all, but I like to think I was just drinking the wrong stuff!

What was the process like from that beginning point to where you are now, a World Cup Tasters champion? That’s a big question so you can attack it however you like.

Well, it was years of roasting, cupping, roasting again and cupping again! When I started it took a while before I felt assured enough of my own judgement to speak up in cupping sessions with my bosses, but I had great help from them along the way. I was pretty much left do my own devices with the roaster and I don’t think I would have learned as much about the taste of the coffees if I hadn’t been roasting them myself as well, 15 different profiles of the one and same coffee soon blows your mind about the potential the little beans hold. Also beneficial was gaining the perspective of following farms from harvests to harvests, one crop as it aged over years, tasting several varietals or processes from one farm, judging at the Cup of Excellence, constantly being exposed to new beans and never being able to feel complacent. I was eventually put in charge of training others and holding cupping workshops for clients, so I must have been doing something right! It also meant I had to be able to answer all the questions they were going to throw at me as well, so any shyness had to be overcome rather quickly.

That said, I thought the WCT competition was horrible, I do not enjoy competing at all! But I decided to do it after watching the national rounds on a trip home, where I had the chance to take part but was too shy and worried about making a fool of myself to step up to the plate. I had a sneak taste of the coffees after the winners were announced, and realizing that I would actually had done really well I thought that if we ever did this in the UK I would stop being such a chicken and just go for it. I was then asked to go and represent the UK in Antwerp, couldn’t say no, and ended up doing pretty good! I was probably happier that I had overcome my fear of the spotlight more than winning, but I have to say I am pleased to prove to myself that I’m not half bad at tasting as well. Cupping is way more than being able to spot a difference between some cups of coffee though, I hardly walk around thinking I’m the best cupper in the world. Even so, within the WCTC format, I’m pleased to beat some of the people I did!

I’ve been thinking more and more about taste in the continuing hullabaloo over Hacienda La Esmeralda Special, which I’ve tasted in a few cities through various brewing methods and keep being led to wonder: am I missing something? Though I already know I tend to favour coffees that lean more towards, say, earth or grapefruit or tomato soup, I can’t help second-guessing my own tastes when someone hands me some fancy-pants Panamanian that I’m supposed to think is amazing. While I don’t really think there’s a “right” and “wrong”, what would you say to people like me that are just developing an understanding of their own palates?

No, I see your point entirely. I also look at some coffees and think; I understand why people rave about it, but personally I don’t enjoy the taste. It’s unique, different, challenging and rare, but I wouldn’t have another cup. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to be able to vocalize why you like something or why you don’t. Even if I don’t personally like a coffee, I still might stock it because I have customers who will like it. And I need to know how to get them the best of that origin or varietal or harvest. I suppose you have to learn how to trust your own instincts while also listening to others and trying to appreciate opinions that differ from yours. I’d say cupping with other people who are not shy about offering their opinions or asking for yours is one of the best ways to develop your palate. Having a common vocabulary to take into such cuppings is really valuable, so exercising your tastebuds on other things as well, like fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs, teas and infusions, smelling flowers and wood- logging all these aromas and flavours in your memory so you have a better chance at putting the word to the taste when you cup coffee. Another thing is to cup with specific purposes and bean selections- beyond ‘look how different these coffee from around the world are’.

What are your personal preferences in terms of coffee? You can take this wherever you want — how do you like your espresso, what are your favourite single origins lately, how do you prepare at home (if at all — I know you’re busy opening a business)?

I never tend to have a preference, I like a lot of coffees for different reasons. Some days I prefer something sweet, comfortable and plain tasty, other days I like the fruit and the challenge. I like not having to choose one coffee to drink for the rest of my life!

Preparation wise I’m more a cafetiere girl. I grew up with filter coffee as an everyday staple and while I enjoy espresso my best memories of coffee are camping in Norway with a beat up kettle over an open — kokekaffe as we call it. It’s lovely when I can drink coffee without analyzing or judging it, and it’s back to the social drink I saw it as as a child. It happens less and less, though, which is why I largely drink tea when I’m off duty and just need something warming and satisfying!

As well as being an award-winning taster, you also judge. Do you see a lack of representation from women in the judging end of competition? If so, does it seem proportional to the amount of women in coffee bar owner/leadership roles in the industry?

During the last UK Barista Championship I was the only female judge during all heats. It got to the point where I was referred to as the “token female judge”, but I’ve just trained a few more women for next year’s heats so I hope the old boys’ pool here is ready to review their etiquette and manners manual as well as their judges one. It’s fairly symptomatic for the UK industry, and while of course I’d like to see more women gain positions of owner/leadership, what I’d really like to see is more people with genuine love and appreciation of coffee in positions of owner/leadership, men or women. A lot of people here are in the coffee business for the business and not the coffee.

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Anette at the judges’ table in Toronto with partner James Hoffmann.

There’s been some criticism of the WBC sensory skills test — do you think it is an adequate skills test, and if not, what would you change?

Well, first off, I didn’t pass the test! Which was fine, I’m still quite confident in my ability to taste coffee and give an opinion on it in an objective manner, and there are other ways of being involved in the WBC than judging! I do feel strongly that there needs to be a sensory skills test for potential judges, but perhaps it needs to be one based on actual coffee.

I have no idea how a sensory skills test based on espresso would work, how would one manage the number of potential judges, and who gets to say what’s good or bad? I appreciate that it’s difficult to find a format that is clear cut enough, where faults in preparation or personal opinion don’t come into play and end up as a point of contestation should one not pass. The water test does offer that, you can’t really argue with it, you either get it right or you don’t. Still, maybe something like triangle cupping can be implemented one day, it’s still not espresso but at least it’s coffee and you either find the odd one out or you don’t. It’s timed as well, so you have to be able to make a judgment quickly, just like in competitions. For a more nuanced test, perhaps a trusted and elected panel of cuppers (political nightmare of course) could select a range of coffees to describe and rank, then see how the judging candidates’ descriptions and ranking compares. Not in a “if you don’t agree with us you can’t judge”- sort of test, but more a mapping to identify who is more or less calibrated or more or less confident in their assessment with the view to train them further. With the increase of baristas giving very specific origin and flavour details about their espresso, perhaps one should even look at who of the judges are able to convey that information into practical tools for evaluating the drinks. I’d also like to see a better technical skills test for the judges.

In any other competition, competitors are judged by specialists, experts, who perhaps have proven themselves in the same field and have equal or even better skills than the competitor. That is not always the case in barista competitions. And perhaps it is not vital to know how to make the perfect espresso yourself to be able to evaluate consistent dosing and tamping, but when it comes to explaining to that barista afterwards why he only got a 1.5 on that box, it would be great to have judges who can explain why what the barista did was unfortunate and how to do better, rather than just saying it wasn’t very good. If I was competing after months of practice, studying the rules and scoresheets and investing time and money into a 15 minute performance, I would hate to be judged by someone who’s opinions I didn’t respect or trust, who could show up for one day of lectures and a multiple choice test and gain the right to pass judgement on me.

I think most coffee geeks would agree that educating themselves about the cup is a beneficial thing: but as a burgeoning roaster and retailer, how do you see this in practical terms? I was recently talking to my dad (who is old-fashioned) while in a cafe full of staff who were greedily sampling some Esmeralda — he pointed out that many of the young people, who he thought looked like they were “not working” (ha) might not even be in coffee in a year or two. Where’s the line of effectiveness in developing the palates of both your staff and customers in a way that makes sense on a daily basis? Naturally you’re not going to be moving £10 cups of coffee out the door in a morning rush, but could you speak a little to how much it is fair to expect of both your employees and your clientele in terms of helping them develop a sophisticated palate?

Regardless of what your business is, any staff that comes into contact with your customers should know the product they’re selling. If I’m only serving espresso based drinks, I want the staff to be able to prepare them the best possible way. If I’m selling whole beans or offering different filter style coffees to drink, I want the staff to know not only how to prepare it, but how to communicate the coffees’ qualities to customers. We are very much in a position where we have to educate our own consumers, and it takes a whole cafe/roastery to do that, not just a couple of directors behind the scenes.

You’re never guaranteed staff to hang around for the remainder of their working lives, but that’s no reason not to train them in what your business is. As long as they are there, they should be able to do what the job requires, and if that’s cupping then you teach them that. Not everyone will find coffee to be their lifelong passion, but just maybe the odd staff member would consider coffee as a career. If there is no progression or challenge in a job, if there is no reward beyond the paycheck then you’re guaranteed that they will leave in one to two years anyway. When I stopped working bar I was so tired of it, I was underutilized and not going anywhere. If I hadn’t started cupping and roasting I would not have been in coffee still, with a degree in Drama and Performing arts I might have been running around backstage at a playhouse on Shaftesbury Avenue. But I’m glad I’m still in coffee and pushing it forward any way James and I can, and if we can inspire other people to do the same then that’s a job perq that we don’t mind working hard to get.

2 Responses to “twitchy interview no. 1: anette moldvaer”

  1. Dan

    That was a wonderful interview, one of the best i’ve read.

  2. Jason

    Excellent interview – thanks Liz & Anette

    BTW – your NY Cafe Scene Report on CG was great as well, keep it up Liz.

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